This month for my Research Secrets column I have interviewed Sue Wallman about her research for her award-winning YA thrillers. I have previously interviewed and blogged about Sue Wallman before when I interviewed her for Papers Pens Poets. Take a look at: An interview with… Sue Wallman
Her first book, Lying about Last Summer was selected for the WHSmith Zoella Book Club, and is about a girl who feels guilty about the death of her sister who drowned in a swimming pool the previous summer. While at a bereavement camp, she receives messages from someone claiming to be her dead sister. That book was followed by See How They Lie, set in a luxurious wellness retreat in the States. My third book, Your Turn to Die, is about three families who meet every year to stay in an old house, and my latest, Dead Popular, takes place in a boarding school by the sea. They are all published by Scholastic in the UK.
Sue told me that when she is researching:
“I prefer to write first and check later, unless it’s impossible to get the scene down without prior research. It feels more efficient because then I understand exactly what I need to know.” (Sue Wallman)
Her main research tools are the internet and talking to experts, or people who have experienced what she wants to write about. For example, Dead Popular is set in a boarding school. Sue didn’t go to boarding school, so she sought out people who had. Someone told her how she and her friends would use their phones to photograph staff inputting a PIN on a gate, then zoom in afterwards. She used this information when her characters to crept out of their boarding house. Such ‘real life’ accounts help Sue to develop her story.
“One of the reasons I write for teenagers is because I clearly remember how it felt to be one myself. I can tap into the emotions I felt in the 1980’s pretty easily and that’s very useful, but to write in a voice which feels authentic to today’s teenager requires me to do a lot of listening.” (Sue Wallman)
Sue listens to how her own children speak with their friends, and it’s often different to how they speak to adults. She loves teenage slang and find it fascinating but does not to use too much of it in her novels because it dates, and can be particular to a certain region.
As a school librarian Sue is well placed to listen to teenage speech patterns. She listens to the way the students start their sentences with “Wait,” or “Also” and end it with “right?” and writes down phrases which appeal. Recent ones include “Don’t kill my vibe” and “If you’re interested, hit me up.” If she is not sure how to phrase something, she simply asks but is aware the danger is when you don’t know what question to ask.
Sue told me that her characters really come alive for her when she is discussing them with others as if they’re real. She explained this is because the voice is not just about the words – it is young people’s sense of injustice about situations they have no control over, loyalty to friendship groups, anxieties about how they are perceived, and their opinions on a diverse range of topics.
In the interview, Sue explained how setting is especially important in thrillers because it builds suspense. She describes her thrillers as claustrophobic. She revealed that bereavement camps like the one she wrote about in Lying About Last Summer don’t actually exist but regular activity ones do, and there are also various charities which run holidays for teenagers, so she meshed them together. She also makes use of experiences she has had in different areas of her life – for example, one of my daughters had a paint-balling party so I used paint-balling as an activity in the bereavement camp.
Her research tip to other thriller writers for children is to think about the sorts of phrases your own characters use. Type them into the search line of your search engine and a blog or article may come up, written by someone with those views and experiences that you can use as good background knowledge for your novel.